Two commercial satellites docked in orbit as part of a groundbreaking satellite service mission. If the rest of the mission is successful, it could give a distressed communication satellite a new lease of life, and it could start an industry that ensures that space debris doesn’t block the air.
“This is the first time in history that a docking has ever been done with a satellite that is not pre-designed with docking in mind,” said Joe Anderson, vice president at Space Logistics, in a press conference. Space Logistics is the subsidiary of Northrop Grumman that oversaw the mission. “This is the first time that two commercial satellites have ever docked.”
On February 25, Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1), linked to a communications satellite, Intelsat 901. After nearly 19 years in space, Intelsat 901 has almost no fuel left. If nothing had been done, people on the ground would have lost the ability to actively control the satellite. So a few years ago, Intelsat decided to sign up for a mission who would send another satellite to extend the life of his ailing spacecraft for another five years.
MEV-1 was launched in October 2019 and it took about three months for it to reach Intelsat 901. The satellites met in a so-called “cemetery”, a place where perished satellites are placed so that they do not interfere with active satellites. Now that the two are linked, MEV-1 takes over all maneuvers and navigation. Sometime in March, Intelsat 901 will be moved out of the cemetery orbit so that it can return to operations. After about five years, MEV-1 will move Intelsat 901 back to the orbit of the cemetery where the communications satellite will be taken out of operation. At that time, MEV-1 could possibly operate another satellite.
The mission is an exciting milestone for the industry, which has been working for years on unscrewed satellite repair. By placing satellites orbiting the Earth, satellite companies can save a lot of money and potentially reduce the amount of space waste around the Earth. Previous missions to relocate or operate satellites have relied on manned missions, such as multiple trips to maintain the Hubble Space Telescope.
Northrop Grumman is not the only company that is trying to switch to satellite repair. Astroscale, a private company focused on the removal of space debris, plans to launch a test mission this year, in which two satellites with magnetic plates will practice in space. It hopes to develop a way to defeat satellites and lead them into orbit where they will eventually burn out in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Northrop Grumman has another mission, MEV-2, which is expected to be launched later this year and which will also operate an Intelsat satellite. The company is still working on it fleet of the next generation of satellite services. That fleet will contain smaller Mission Extension Pods, which are designed to offer smaller fixes than the MEVs and will be deployed by a robotic spacecraft.